When Christmas Isn’t Merry

I first published this post on December 24, 2014. It seemed to hit a chord with readers then, and somehow, I sense it might again this year, so here it is once more.

Okay, I’m going to stir things up I suppose, but I’ll just say it: I don’t think the first Christmas was “merry.”

I’m not trying to be a Scrooge. I’m just readjusting my expectations for what Christmas is “supposed” to be. I don’t think it has to be merry in order to be good.

Hollywood and Hallmark paint pictures of perfect houses, perfect families, perfect dinners, perfect friends, perfect decorating, perfect gifts, perfect happiness. But that’s not the reality many of us face.

Not everyone’s kids come home for the holidays. Not everyone has a spouse to share the day with. Some people are challenged by unemployment or debt. Others deal with scary medical situations. Some suffer chronic depression. Many have strained relationships. Some have painful memories of deaths that took place during this season. Others just aren’t great cooks or decorators or party planners. Many are just plain tired and overwhelmed.

As I’ve spent time with the stories of Advent this year, I’ve tried to imagine what that first Christmas was really like. My surprising conclusion is that while the first Christmas was altogether good, it was probably not merry.

Here are some things I imagine.

  • I imagine it was lonely. Sure, Mary and Joseph probably traveled in a caravan. And they went to a town that was bustling. But, as we all know, being surrounded by people is not the same as belonging. Mary, as far as anyone was concerned, was a loose woman. And Joseph’s integrity would have been questioned too. Were Mary’s and Joseph’s parents even supportive of them?
  • I imagine it was frightening. Teenaged Mary was about to give birth. What would it be like? There was no bed waiting for her at the Bethlehem Birthing Center. She had no birthing coach. Lots of women died of childbirth in those days. Would she come through this okay?
  • I imagine the political climate was tense. A first-ever worldwide census? What was Rome up to now? I imagine the talk on the street was nervous and edgy. Oppressed people fomenting for change . . . not exactly the silent, holy, all-is-calm, all-is-bright mood the Christmas songs portray.
  • And then there’s the bunch of coarse sheep herders showing up unannounced to see this new Baby. If that’s not stressful, tell me what is? Did Mary and Joseph think, “Oh, good, a party! Let’s bring out more cider and cookies and sing around the piano”? I doubt it. Mary and Joseph were hardly in a position to receive company, let alone a bunch of strangers.

If Mary and Joseph had expectations for what the birthday of the Son of God should have been like, well, I venture to say it may have turned out differently than they would have anticipated. It was deeply good. But it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. And I doubt it was merry.

What made that first Christmas good? Light came into darkness. The Lord’s promises were fulfilled. Hope was born. A Savior came to rescue broken sinners. The humble were dignified and given holy purpose. Emmanuel came to experience life with us as one of us.

And those are the things that still make Christmas good. If you get to have gifts and food and parties and decorations, that’s wonderful! Enjoy them! Christmas is certainly a cause for celebration! But if you don’t, I hope you will remember that Christmas is good, even if it’s not always merry.



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